By Christian Lowe in Baku
(AFP) - Thousands of ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan are living a twilight existence, too scared to tell anyone their real names, go to the doctor or apply for state benefits. Stranded in Azerbaijan after a war between the two countries in the early 1990s, they are now bearing the brunt of the bitterness and anger Azeri people feel towards their nation.
When war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in 1989, hundreds of thousands of Armenians, whose forebears had lived peacefully for centuries alongside the Azeris, fled the country fearing reprisals. But many -- 20,000 according to official estimates -- stayed on for various reasons: because they were married to Azeris, because they felt Azerbaijan was their home, or simply because they had nowhere else to go.
Over a decade later, the war is long over but the hatred lingers. Armenian citizens only travel to Azerbaijan as part of official delegations sponsored by international organizations, and even then they are given police protection. For the ethnic Armenians who continue to live inside Azerbaijan, their daily life, they say, involves running a gauntlet of insults and discrimination even though most have changed their Armenian-sounding names.
Elmira Kurbanova is herself not Armenian but her ex-husband, with whom she had two children, was. She claims that because of persecution by her neighbours she had to leave her home in Sumgait, near the Azeri capital Baku. She is now homeless and her eldest son is in prison for shoplifting. She wants to apply for political asylum in the United States.
"I married an Armenian and they will not let me forget that for a hundred years. They will never accept that I am Azeri," she said. "After I separated from my husband I could not find any man to look after my family. I was left completely alone and had to beg for food... I feel like a cuckoo in the nest. Everywhere here I am foreign."
Angela Osmanova was born to an Azeri mother and an Armenian father, and is married to an Azeri. She claims she lost her job as a teacher and was beaten up by her neighbours because of her Armenian blood. "All this is linked to my nationality," said Osmanova, who lives with her husband in Baku. "They do not even take into account that I am only half Armenian but they attach that label to me regardless."
"I cannot show my passport anywhere because of my nationality. When I was in hospital after I had a miscarriage I had to check myself out after one day because they kept asking me what nationality I was."
Such cases are not rare, according to Arzu Abdullayeva, chair of local human rights group the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly. She said she is approached on average by six ethnic Armenians each month seeking her help.
But there is another, more tolerant side to the coin. Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliev personally intervened on behalf of Osmanova who claimed she was being discriminated against in a property dispute. Abdullayeva said she knew of a young Armenian man with learning difficulties who was taken in and cared for by his Azeri neighbours when his parents died.
Officials hint that some ethnic Armenians play the nationality card to get preferential treatment and point to the fact that there are many times more Armenians living in Azerbaijan than vice versa. "There are thousands and thousands of Armenians in Azerbaijan. Not just in Baku but in other regions, who live under their own names," said Idayat Orudzhev, State Adviser on National Minorities.
"They work, they receive their pensions, they bring up their children. There are Armenians in old peoples' homes being kept by the government, there are Armenian children living in our orphanages. They have the same rights as anyone else, they have the same status as all national minorities in Azerbaijan... Azerbaijan is showing its great humanity whereas in Armenia there is not a single Azeri left."